Leveling the Playing Field for Research Productivity

University administrators often don’t understand that business school faculty have fewer opportunities to publish in top-tier journals.

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WE’VE ALWAYS LIKED this quote from Leanne Caret, president and chief executive officer of Boeing Defense, Space & Security: “I'm all for competition; competition is good. I just want to make sure the playing field is level.”

But in the matter of research productivity on the university campus, the field is anything but level. That is, the conditions aren’t fair and equal for all types of scholars producing all types of research, but key university administrators often are not aware of the discrepancies. In particular, many important decision makers have biased and misinformed views about why business researchers might not publish in top-tier journals as often as faculty from other disciplines.

At most universities, research productivity fulfills three key functions. First, it is used as a major component in faculty hiring, promotion, and tenure decisions. Second, it provides evidence of a school’s “research excellence.” Third, it often determines how universities make internal decisions to allocate research funds.

To measure research productivity, administrators consider four factors. They evaluate research impact, which usually means measuring citation counts. They determine research quantity, which includes both counting the number of publications and weighing the relative value of articles in peer-reviewed journals, articles in non-peer-reviewed journals, and chapters in books. They evaluate an article’s importance as a contribution to the body of literature, although this sometimes takes years to determine. Finally, they consider the quality of the content, which is generally determined by expert value judgments such as peer review.

It is challenging enough for business school deans to weigh these four factors when evaluating the research productivity of their faculty. But problems can arise when other important decision makers—such as the university president or provost—become involved in the evaluations. These university administrators often judge the impact, quantity, importance, and quality of business school research by comparing it to how scholarship is conducted within their own disciplines. And they often don’t understand the differences between the publishing opportunities for business faculty and those for faculty from scientific fields.


The first thing administrators should realize is that business faculty cannot submit proposals to business conferences and have these count as refereed publications—whereas academics in many scientific fields can. The publishing company Elsevier maintains Scopus, a database of peer-reviewed journals, books, and abstracts. For fields such as chemistry and computer science, certain conferences are included on the Scopus index, and academics who have abstracts accepted to these conferences can count their submissions as Scopus-indexed publications. But there are no similar indexes for business conferences, leaving management faculty with one less publication outlet.


Administrators also should understand that business faculty have fewer opportunities to secure external grant funding, which is often a key measure of research excellence at research-focused universities. But external funding almost always is exclusively geared toward science-related research. For example, in 2018, the National Science Foundation in the U.S. had an annual budget of US$7.8 billion. Almost all of it was targeted to science and medical research.

In fact, government grants and contracts typically account for about 2 percent of a business school’s operating funds, according to 2018–2019 data from AACSB International. Contrast that with the budget for a heavily science-focused school like Boston University in Massachusetts. According to an article on the school’s website, about 80 percent of the roughly $350 million the university received for sponsored research in fiscal year 2014 came directly from the federal government. Another 10 percent originated in government grants that came to BU through other institutions.

Because external grant funding is not nearly as prevalent for business school research, business faculty have to find more innovative ways to produce scholarship. At the same time, business school deans must battle the perception that the business school isn’t carrying its weight when it comes to generating external funding.


Another way university administrators judge the research productivity of faculty is by the quantity of scholarly output—in fact, output might be the factor that most influences administrators’ opinions. But it’s also the area where the playing field is the farthest from being level. Business researchers simply don’t have the same opportunities for publishing as scholars in other fields do.

To make this point, we explored the Scopus database for 2017 and 2018 in the classifications of “business, management and accounting” and “chemistry.” We determined the top ten journals in both categories based upon each journal’s SCImago Journal Rank (SJR indicator), which measures the scientific influence of scholarly journals both by the number of citations and by the prestige of the journals where the citations originate.

The top SJR business journals include, from one to ten: Journal of Finance, Review of Financial Studies, Journal of Financial Economics, Academy of Management Annals, Journal of Labor Economics, Journal of Marketing, Academy of Management Journal, International Organization, Strategic Management Journal, and Academy of Management Review. For chemistry, the top journals are: Chemical Reviews, Nature Materials, Chemical Society Reviews, Nature Chemistry, Accounts of Chemical Research, Journal of the American Chemical Society, Nano Letters, Progress in Polymer Science, Nature Communications, and Angewandte Chemie.


Among business journals, the number of issues produced in a single year ranged from four to 12, for an average of 6.9 per year. Among chemistry journals, the issues ranged from 12 to 52 per year, with one journal publishing continuously. Because of how frequently top chemistry journals are published, researchers in this field have access to at least four times as many quality publishing outlets as business researchers do—which means they can publish significantly more material.

In fact, in 2017 and 2018, there were 24,502 Scopus-indexed articles published in the top ten chemistry journals, compared to 1,447 business articles in the top ten journals. Because chemistry researchers had so many more top journal issues available for their submissions, they were 15 times more prolific than business researchers in that period of time.

When we take the number of researchers into consideration, the challenges for business scholars are even more evident. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ estimates for the U.S. (released in May 2019), there were about 21,380 chemistry professors and 83,920 business professors. The ratio of available article slots to U.S.-based researchers can be used as a rough proxy for competition for publication in top-tier journals. If the business ratio is 1,447 to 83,920 and the chemistry ratio is 24,502 to 21,380, the ratio is 0.01 for business professors and 1.14 for chemistry professors. Clearly, competition is far stiffer for business scholars than chemistry researchers.

There are two more reasons that chemistry researchers are more likely than business professors to publish in highly ranked journals: They collaborate in greater numbers, and they produce shorter articles. For instance, of the 1,447 business articles in top journal publications, 82 percent had three or fewer authors; no articles had more than seven authors. However, of the 24,502 chemistry publications, 83 percent were produced by author collaborations of four researchers or more; 8 percent were produced by 16 or more authors. During the 2017–2018 period, the average number of authors per paper was 2.7 for business journals and 8.2 for chemistry journals. (The field of medicine tends to have even larger percentages of co-authors.) During this same timeframe, chemistry articles averaged 10 pages in length, while business articles averaged 28 pages.

Assuming that writing is comparable across disciplines, chemistry faculty can produce more scholarly outputs than business faculty, because each chemistry researcher contributes about one-third of the effort required for each paper, and each paper is one-third as long.


It is no wonder that faculty in science disciplines can outproduce their business counterparts: They enjoy a greater number of quality publishing outlets and heightened access to research funding; they require less time and effort to produce articles; and they can count some of their conference proceedings as Scopus-indexed publications.

Clearly, this is not an equitable approach to measuring research productivity on campus. If there were, conditions would be fair for all schools and all faculty, opportunities would be equal for everyone involved, and no disciplines would have unfair advantages in terms of how research is conducted and published.

One way to improve the situation would be for administrators to allocate budgets more fairly. For instance, some universities directly allocate to each school a fixed percentage of the income they bring in from fees and tuition. An arrangement like this provides better incentives to faculty members and helps to level the playing field somewhat.

Unfortunately, aside from advocating for such budgeting decisions, business school deans can do little to bring equity to the issue of research productivity. They can’t change the fact that business articles take more time to write because they have fewer co-authors and higher page counts than science-oriented pieces. Business school deans can’t alter a grant-funding process that disproportionately favors the sciences. They can’t make business conferences count toward Scopus indexing or increase the number of issues available from top-ranked journals.

What deans can do is be aware of the significant differences in how scholarship is conducted and published in the scientific fields as opposed to the business disciplines—and how those differences put business disciplines at a competitive disadvantage. They also can make sure that the university president, provost, and other decision makers understand the imbalances in the opportunities provided to faculty of various disciplines. Otherwise, these outside administrators could have distorted perceptions of the quality and quantity of business research—and these perceptions could influence important decisions they will make about the future of the school and its faculty.

Finally, business school deans can emphasize to university leaders the intrinsic value of their faculty research. Of the four dimensions of research productivity—impact, quantity, importance, and quality—importance is arguably the most critical aspect of business research. Many business professors are focusing their scholarship on improving management practices, addressing economic issues, solving complex global problems, and making business a force for good in society. Some insights from their articles will have significant impacts on business practices for decades. In that context, the quantity of articles published in top-tier journals is not nearly as important as the impact those articles could have on the world.

Steve WIlliams

Steve Williams is dean at Sunway University Business School in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia





Chaiporn Vithessonthi is professor of finance in the department of economics and finance at Sunway University Business School; he previously served as the school's associate dean for postgraduate and research.


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